Opinion & Features

Andrew M Brown: Spare us the secular hagiographies

People continue to place flowers around a mural of British singer David Bowie by artist Jimmy C in Brixton (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

‘He was a man,” says Hamlet about the dead father he adores. “Take him for all in all, / I shall not look upon his like again.” The great Edwardian Shakespeare scholar AC Bradley used these lines to support his argument that Hamlet is not interested in outward distinctions of rank and what matters to him is a person’s deep-down human worth. So he would stress the word man, to contrast with Horatio’s “he was a goodly king” in the previous line.

I thought about what Hamlet says, particularly “take him for all in all”, last week when David Bowie died, and the tone of some of the coverage was what you would expect if a saint had just died. In general we are sentimental in our attitudes to the deaths of famous people. We think of them as they were when close to death, ill and vulnerable and almost cuddly. We lose a sense of perspective about a whole life lived.

In the case of Bowie, some of the online “trolls” reacted as if it was wrong to try
to write objectively about him. One complained that The Daily Telegraph’s obituary was “tainted with disrespect”. But that is to misunderstand the point of an obituary. We’re trying to get at some semblance of the truth: truth in charity (or charity in truth). We owe that to the dead person, and to the readers.

The gushing mood that prevails on the day someone dies quickly disperses, and then people are hungry to read a balanced assessment, not something pretending that every experimental album was a masterpiece.

Bowie, for example, went through well-attested periods of extensive drug use, but some of his fans don’t like to be reminded of this. Even followers of someone as groovy as Ziggy Stardust reveal surprisingly moralistic views about drug addiction when their idol is threatened.

(This reminded me of an occasion when I met a woman in a record shop in East Ham devoted to bootleg recordings of performances by Elvis Presley. Like me she was an enthusiast and we started chatting. She was intelligent and self-aware but when it came to the King she refused point-blank to countenance the possibility that drugs had hastened his unexpected demise. She lost all mental flexibility on this one issue.)

Hagiography is monotonous (ups and downs are more interesting) and, above all, it is humourless. Bowie (who once observed: “I will be Xeros, Emperor of Isolar and last existing antibody from Reality”) had a good sense of humour. It’s a pity some of his fans seem not to.

This week I battled briefly with our 10-year-old over his wearing his school coat in the freezing weather.

I gave up and he left – inadequately dressed, in my view. In that little exchange I lost authority, and there are numerous episodes like that, usually over trivia, every week. I’m not alone, which must be why there’s such an appetite just now for conservative books on how to bring up children with old-fashioned discipline.

The worry that sells these books is summed up in the title of the newest example, The Collapse of Parenting, by Leonard Sax, an American who was interviewed in The Times last week. He says children are being ruined by some parents’ narcissistic desire to be “BFFs” – Best Friends Forever – and that is incompatible with a traditional family hierarchy.

Instead there is pleading and orders are replaced by questions (“What would you like for tea?” instead of “It’s Spam for tea”). Meanwhile, the child’s self-esteem is so relentlessly boosted with praise that later, in the real world, he or she can’t deal with setbacks, and collapses.

The rot started with the baby boomers. They wanted a friendlier relationship with their “kids” and in exchange sacrificed the automatic obedience that their parents took for granted.

The current generation of parents go further – not necessarily to the extent of Sax’s BFFs, but they want to talk to their children, listen to them and spend time with them. The trouble is now the discipline is looser and respect further eroded, so it’s even harder to reconcile friendship with discipline. Parents have ceded so much ground in the quest for a gentler, friendlier relationship with children – is it too late to claw it back?

Andrew M Brown is the obituaries editor of The Daily Telegraph